The first time I interviewed Ray Harryhausen was in September 2003 on stage at the old Phoenix Arts in Leicester, inbetween screenings of Jason and the Argonauts and The Valley of Gwangi. I posted about this on my Devil's Porridge blog a couple of years ago. This phone interview was conducted in January 2006, for Fangoria, to promote the book The Art of Ray Harryhausen. And now Ray has gone. But I feel no sadness, only happy memories of the man and his films. He lived a long, happy life, doing what he loved and sharing that passion with other people, and he will be remembered long after most of us are dust. Who could ask for more than that? God bless, Ray.
Was it your idea to do a book of your artwork?
"Tony Dalton and I discussed it. We didn’t have room for it in the first book and we thought maybe a second book would be in order. We arranged to have it printed. It took a year or so. It was rather rushed but we had so much material left over that we couldn’t fit into the first book."
How did you choose what went into the book? You’ve got 200+ pieces of artwork in there - was that everything you wanted to include?
"No, we’re going to do a third book in the future, I think, but I can’t discuss that at the moment. It’s a book that I think is an inspiration. It tells all about how I started in the early days and it’s sort of a companion piece to the previous book, An Animated Life. We’re going to launch the book in March in America."
I think you’re 85 now, Ray.
"Yes, I’m afraid so."
Isn’t it getting a bit much, all this travelling?
"Well, you can’t sit and twiddle your thumbs! I’m not that type. I like to hear the views of young people. I get a lot of fans now from this age that feel that our films are important, so I’m grateful for that. Our films have survived for 50 years or more, since we made The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms."
It’s a mark of quality: ‘this is a Ray Harryhausen film’.
"I know - I’m tickled with that. Because in the early days our films were all considered B-pictures and I don’t know why. We tried to give them a rich look so they wouldn’t be classified as B-pictures but they always had a limited budget and we had to compromise a great deal to get the pictures made. I’m happy to say that they’ve survived when many of the so-called A-pictures of that period, you never hear of again."
How much artwork would you do for each movie? Did you draw lots of versions of different things?
"Oh yes. The script would go through a metamorphosis of different concepts. We worked very hard on the script; Mr Charles Schneer and the writer and myself would be the three key people. Our pictures were not what you would call ‘a director’s picture’ in the European sense of the word. Because the director doesn’t make the picture; Charles Schneer and myself and the writer formulate the whole concept. They have to be laid out so carefully so that we could do them on a very tight budget - because that’s the only way fantasy could survive in the fifties.
"Mighty Joe Young, for some strange reason, got the reputation of being very expensive - because they dumped the overhead of RKO on our budget. All the Heads of Departments, a lot of them didn’t have anything to do with the picture but we were the only picture shooting when Howard Hughes took over the studio. They had to dump the expenses of the Heads of Department on somebody - we happened to be it! So it made the picture look like it was terribly costly so I had to go to the other extreme and when I got involved with The Beast we had a budget that was so ridiculously low you could hardly buy a costume today for that."
How far back do these drawings go?
"Oh, they go back to the early days. I’ve tried to keep everything. I’m sort of a squirrel. I tried to keep as many models as I could but, as you know, the rubber models deteriorate over time and many times they just fall off the armatures. And we had to cannibalise, inasmuch as we made so many films on a tight budget, we had to use the armatures over for another film because they were quite expensive. So we dismantled them. The Cyclops became something else and I think the octopus tentacles in It Came from Beneath the Sea became dinosaur tales."
Did you have a say in the layout of the book?
"Oh yes. Tony and I did a very careful job of that. Aurum did a wonderful job in printing the first book and they did an equally wonderful job on this book, I think."
And you have a forward by Peter Jackson.
"Yes, he’s a great friend and a delightful person."
Has the resurgence of interest in King Kong had a knock-on effect of increased interest in your work?
"Have you seen the new King Kong? It’s beautifully made. It’s a little long because it goes deep into the background of Ann Darrow which I think makes it a little too long. But he felt that he wanted to stress her character."
It must be exciting for you as a lifelong Kong fan to see this resurgence.
"I couldn’t find another kindred soul in the early days that was as interested in King Kong as I was. Some people just looked at it as a horror film. But I saw much more in it than just another film. It has proven itself - after 70 years the thing still entertains the populace today. I think stop-motion gives it that lasting quality of a dreamlike world. Fantasy is a dream and I think if you make fantasy too real it becomes mundane."
Although it’s not used so much for special effects, there is still a lot of stop-motion animation around. It’s still alive and well.
"Oh it is. I’m so grateful that Aardman and Will Vinton and others are keeping stop-motion animation alive, and of course Tim Burton with his Corpse Bride. There’s some wonderful things in that but it’s a different type of picture, a different subject. They’re obvious puppets and they’re not supposed to be anything else. We tried to make the animated character a character in the story, rather than an obvious puppet, just as King Kong was a character in the story - he wasn’t supposed to be a puppet."
I believe someone is also published a portfolio of your artwork.
"Yes, there is. A company called Every Picture Tells a Story, a little company in Santa Monica, is putting out a portfolio. I’m delighted, They’re beautiful reproductions on art paper and they’re doing quite well, I understand."
Did you have any artistic training?
"No, I was more self-taught but I did go to night school under the GI Bill of Rights. I went to art students league in New York while I was waiting to get out of the army and took up some painting. It was very spasmodic. I would have loved to have gone on a regular basis but it didn’t happen that way. Most of it was self-taught. Gustav Dore was one of my mentors, and John Martin. And of course that wonderful dinosaur artist in the Museum of Natural History, Charles R Knight."
Do you still draw?
"Oh no, a busman’s holiday! I wish I could draw for fun but I’m not a Rolf Harris. I haven’t drawn for years now, since I retired from film-making."
A lot of the pieces of production artwork are really detailed, beautiful pictures in themselves.
"Yes, they were to help sell the picture. When you’re trying to get a movie off the ground, a picture is worth ten thousand words, somebody said. That’s how Seventh Voyage of Sinbad got made. I made eight big drawings, very carefully rendered, one of which is the cover of the new book - the skeleton on the staircase."
Did you think: ‘I’ll draw what I know I can make’?
"Oh yes, I had to make drawings that I knew I could put on the screen. That’s why it’s so important that the movies were made the way we made them, because of the tight budgets. We couldn’t have much wasted film. We very seldom had extra shots on the cutting room floor. In fact practically everything you see up until Clash of the Titans was the first take. I never had the time or money to do a retake - some of which I would have liked to have done but it just wasn’t an option. Now people have all the money and a staff of 30 artists doing what I did by myself. The end credits are almost as long as the picture!"
In going through the artwork, did you find things you’d forgotten about?
"Oh yes. Tony is a professional researcher and he discovered things I’d forgotten I did! He arranged a lot of the filing and he dug out things that I had forgotten I had made years ago. Some of the drawings I wanted to reject because I felt they were too amateurish but he talked me into publishing them because he said, ‘We’ve got to show the evolution.’ There’s some drawings I would rather have not had in a book but it shows the change in style and everything."
So it’s a book about the creative process rather than just a volume of nice pictures?
"That’s right. We’d love to reach the general public. Any book needs hype and it’s very difficult to get hype on a book like this because people think that it’s just for people who are interested in fandom and special effects. This book is more than that. I think it’s an inspiration to young people. Of course, the world is different today than when I started. Pictures were a novelty when I started. But today we have six or seven cinemas in one building. It’s not the same world as when I grew up.
"There’s a diffeerent point of view in making films today. We used to like to tell a story; many times, the films today, you can’t understand the story - if there is one. Characters appear that you’ve never heard of and you don’t know why they’re there. Read the book Inside Warner Brothers that was published some years ago and see what difficulty they had in making Casablanca! The studio system was so wonderful. They had three or four writers, five or six writers sometimes on a script, and still they didn’t know the ending of Casablanca till they started shooting! So they put much more thought into them in the good old days of Hollywood."